History of Rail Transport

Railroad - Train

Modern transportation of passengers and goods could not be imagined without trains, transport devices that revolutionized our industry, human expansion, and the way we can move from one place to another. Such important presence in our history appeared little over 200 years ago, but even then it was apparent that this new transportation paradigm could become one of the mankind’s greatest fights if the technical hurdles of early industrial revolution could be overcomed.

It all began in over 2000 years ago in ancient civilizations of Egypt, Babylon and Greece. Transport of people and goods in those time was done with carts that were pulled by animals (horses or bulls), and their engineers quickly noticed that animals will spend much less energy if the cart was traveling on predetermined path, without possibility for steering or traveling over uneven terrain. To enable this new way of transport, they build roads with pre-built constraints for wheels. These were the world’s first railway tracks, and archeological remains of them can still be found in Italy and Greece. The most famous example of these ancient stone etched “wagonways” can be found in the Isthmus of Corinth, Greece.

These wagonways went out of use after the fall of Roman Empire, and managed to return only after increased trading and early industrial efforts of European Renaissance. By 18th century, every mine in Great Britain had its own simple railway network, with horses pulling carts from mines to factories. Changes to this kind of transport came in 1774 after the world found out about James Watt incredible discovery – stationary steam engine. As he protected his patents forcefully, the true widespread work on steam powered locomotives started only after his patent lapsed in 1800. Several inventors started working on improving Watt’s design, most notably designing non-condensing high pressure chambers that enabled engine to convert more steam’s power into mechanical energy.

First steam engines started running along primitive rail tracks in 1804. Matthew Murray managed to showcase his simple locomotive first, but Richard Trevithick received more attention with his “Penydarren” locomotive that pulled weight of 25 tons and 70 people during its first ride. This event proved to the engineer community, that pressurized steam engines indeed have enough power to become useful for transport of goods and people.

Commercial appearance of train networks came in late 1820s, and the pioneer in that field was English inventor George Stephenson who entered into competition that wanted to find out which steam locomotive design was easiest to use, most reliable and powerful. His “Rocket” won him that competition, showcasing to the entire world that steam trains are indeed destined for bright future. Designs of such locomotives soon traveled to United States, where they began their rapid expansion across newly acquired lands and American long push to “civilize” the west frontiers.

As train technology received massive updates over those first few decades of public work, urban engineers in London started formulating first plans for inter-city railway tracks and underground tunnels. First section of now famous “London Underground” begun its work in 1863, and even though it received much complaints because of the smoke in the tunnels, it continued growing until 1890 when entire London train fleet started using electrical engines. This marked the beginning of the new era of urban rapid transit systems, and underground Metros started appearing across entire world (the word “metro” came from the name of Paris underground train system “Chemin de Fer Métropolitain”, meaning “Metropolitan Railway”).

Another very important moment in the history of the trains was introduction of Diesel engines, which brought the end to the age of steam locomotives. After second world war almost absolute majority of the world left steam behind, and embraced much faster, easier to maintain and reliable diesel fuel engines. As time went on, diesel engines became combined with electrical ones, enabling trains to use best of both worlds.

Today, trains represent one of the most important ways people and goods travel. Big cities cannot live without fully working underground metro systems that carry millions of people every day, and more heavy and durable industrial trains carry over 40% of worldwide goods between towns, countries, and continents.